The Tenderloin has a lot of interesting characters well-known by everybody in the neighborhood… mostly because they like to hang out in the street in a regular spot. There is comfort in the familiar no matter how much it may stray from the mainstream.
One of the most unusual and interesting in this broad cast of characters is a guy named Michael Swaine who sews clothes in the street for free, once a month. He has a cute mobile sewing cart with an umbrella and, for the last 9 years, on the 15th of the month he sets up shop by the Tenderloin National Forest. The cart has a neon sign with the word ‘sew’ that’s a bit broken. He also used to have signs advertising his “business”, but he’s so popular and beloved in the neighborhood that he doesn’t really need those anymore. People just know that he’ll be there from noon to around 5pm on the 15th, rain or shine. He has become a Tenderloin institution of sorts.
The first time I heard about Michael’s strange project was well before we started The Tender. Since then people have repeatedly told us about him as an example of the community and good things going on in the neighborhood. It’s exactly the kind of stuff we love to blog about here, and although he has received his fair share of (well-deserved) local media coverage over the years, all too often San Franciscans forget about all the good people in the Tenderloin.
For one reason or another I didn’t make it to see Michael until two Sundays ago, on August 15th. After having heard so much about him, I was extremely excited to finally meet him. Before heading down to the TL National Forest I went through my closet to find something to mend. I barely know how to sew a button on a shirt, so I immediately found two clothing items in need of some attention: a skirt clasp that needed reattaching and a pair of gym pants that I recently bought but were too long to wear.
Once I got there I saw him working on a hole in the crotch area of some old pair of jeans. He also had a little pile of items waiting to be mended, which people were going to collect a bit later. On a couple of chairs behind him there were two other people sewing diligently. I said hi and he immediately started chatting, in a way that made it obvious he truly enjoys conversing with strangers. I started asking him about his sewing machine, which apparently he rescued from the street. It’s a really pretty, pedal-powered antique machine that somebody had thrown away one day next to a trash container. He usually wouldn’t have been able to pick it up as he usually moves around by bicycle, but that fateful day some 10 years ago he was with a friend with a car. I’m sure if it had been an abandoned doggy this story would be a lot different.
Being a ceramics and sculpture artist, that inspired him to start a tailoring project originally titled “Reap What You Sew”. It consisted of the artist pushing his cart around the city on a predetermined route for an entire week, and it was part of “The Generosity Project: Strategies for Exchange in Contemporary Art,” held in 2001 at the California College of Art’s Wattis Institute. Michael considers the project a collaboration between himself and those whose clothes he patches, mends, hems and darns. As he put it in this interview for KQED, it’s an opportunity to create social interaction where there would otherwise be none:
I’ve had some wonderful stories told to me, and I realize that if I were standing here without the sewing machine, that person would just walk right by.
I spent a couple of hours hanging out with Michael, and had the opportunity to meet a whole gallery of interesting characters, lot of them regulars. Namely:
- An opportunistic fellow trying to sell scissors (pictured here)
- A young goth musician with his guitar, who was coming back from a rehearsal and wanted us to know about his next concert (unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the name of the band)
- A lady with a huge bag full of clothes named Veronica and who never misses Michael’s monthly sewing date
- An older man with a cane who lives across the street and came to enjoy the sun and gossip about German girls, and who brought his own stool to sit on
- A guy in a wheelchair with his cute dog who had a hole in his jacket pocket
- A lady with her frail elderly father who could barely walk and who brought a jacket with a little hole, and thanked Michael profusely in his broken English for mending it as he said it’s his very favorite jacket (although it looked identical to the one he was wearing)
- A guy who seemed to be in the dealing business wanting smaller pockets in his hoodie because his mobile phone kept falling out of it
- A lady who just wanted a needle and some thread to sew her own stuff at home
- An older lady who brought him a bag full of zippers, since he always needs some for his “clients”
- Several people with leather jackets in need of repair
But my absolute favorite encounter has to be the lady who didn’t speak a word of English and took a potato from one of her bags and gave it to Michael with a big smile. He thanked her politely but wondered what to do with it, and she gestured to him to eat it while she kept talking in what must have been Vietnamese (or perhaps Thai). We looked at each other puzzled and thanked her again, but she kept talking and waving her hands.
Finally, realizing her message wasn’t getting through, she reached into her bag again, took another potato and broke it in two to show that it was boiled. Michael then took a bite off his potato and thanked her again. Some half an hour later, the lady came back and seeing that he hadn’t finished his potato, reminded him about it. Then I understood she was worried about him spending too many hours working without any food. Moms…
During my visit I also saw a guy who tried to give Michael money, but he categorically refused saying that he should give it to somebody needy. I asked him if it’s common that people try to pay him, but he said most people show his gratitude by bringing him zippers, buttons and other sewing supplies, or occasionally coffee or snacks (such as opportunistic boiled potato delivery). He said that there used to be a guy living on that block who would bring chai from his apartment. Unfortunately, I didn’t see him (I love chai!).
I should note that, due to his popularity, Michael welcomes volunteers who can sew to help him out with his work. As mentioned in the list of people who came by while I was hanging out with him, he gets a lot of requests for leather clothing or other items that have to be mended by hand as they are too thick for the sewing machine. That kind of work requires time, so he especially welcomes assistants who can help him with hand-sewing jobs (if you’re interested you can call this number at the Luggage Store Gallery, who manages the Tenderloin National Forest: 415. 255-5971).
When I visited Michael, he had two assistants. One was a young girl whose name I forgot to ask (I’m an excellent reporter, I know), who was helping him as part of her community service for her upcoming bar mitzvah. The other one was a lovely lady named Laurel who went to Spain on her honeymoon (good choice) and was working on attaching fur to a coat. Apparently a Russian lady found some real mink in a thrift store and thought it would be a good idea to attach it on the sleeves of her good coat. Laurel spent a couple of hours working on it, so when she finished it I asked her to model it so you guys can appreciate it. She said she’s a sculptor who met Michael at an art workshop and since she likes sewing decided to help him. It was the first time she worked on mink.
Like everybody else, I left happy with my fixed skirt and my now usable gym clothes. I couldn’t help but ask him why he had chosen this neighborhood, and if he had ever felt unsafe here. He said that when you’re not afraid to open up to people, people open up to you. He started coming here by chance, because there was some kind of art festival in that block, but decided to stay because he found a truly warm neighborhood welcoming him. It was in the Tenderloin where he had the most interesting conversations, and it was here where people were the most willing to chat with him. After all these years, he says he still enjoys and has no plans to stop doing it. We sure hope he doesn’t.
Ps: if you liked what Michael does, you can watch this short video produced a couple of years ago for a Knitting & Stitching Show in London.